Learning The Greek Language: Beware False Friends

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins read

One likes to think that with so much influence on the English language, there should be a wealth of cognates in Greek which would make it easier for a native English-speaker to learn — and there are — but there are also a lot of "false friends"... words that sound like cognates, but are not.

When I started learning Greek this year, one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome was dealing with false friends. Right from the start, several of the most commonly used words in the Greek language are false friends!

ναι - perhaps the most difficult false friend with Greek, this one still causes me trouble. The word means "yes", but it is pronounced "nay" which means no in English, and sounds like a word of negation in many other languages as well.

μια - another words that's been particularly troublesome. This word is pronounced "mia", which would sound like a first-person possessive (my) in a large number of Indo-European languages, but in Greek it is a feminine indefinite article (a/an).

με - anyone with any experience in a Romance language would take this word as an accusative personal pronoun (me), and it does indeed have that function. However, most of the time that it's used, its meaning is "with". (με ζάχαρη = with sugar).

τι - this sounds like it could be a second-person pronoun (you) in almost any Indo-European language. Unfortunately, that's not even close. This word means "what?".

και - speaking of the word "what", that's exactly what I want to think when I hear this word. Pronounced "kay", it sounds exactly like the Spanish qué or the Italian che, but it actually means "and"!

η - and the word "and" is what my mind thinks when I hear this word, which sounds like the Spanish "y" or the Russian "и", but is actually the feminine definite article (the).

ή - to make things even more difficult, adding a stress to the same word changes its meaning to "or"!

ο - And "or" is what I want to think when I see this word, but it's actually the masculine definite article (the).

Those are all very common words, ready to trip up the new learner from day 1. At this point, I've managed to successfully separate them in my mind from their "false friend" meanings. (Though I must admit that I still have trouble with ναι!)

But there are also several more landmines waiting for the Greek learner. Here are a few that I have discovered so far...

ιδιωτικός - sounds like the English word idiotic, which likely originates from this Greek word, but definitely has a completely different meaning today. Ιδιωτικός means "private".

κόσμος - sounds like "cosmos", which in English and Russian refers to outer space, but in Greek this word means "world".

λιμάνι - pronounced "limáni", it sounds like it would mean "lemon", but it actually mean "port".

ερώτηση - saving the best for last, this word is pronounced "erótisi", I'm sure you can imagine why I thought it meant something other than "question".

I'm sure I'll discover many more along the way, but as you can see, that's already a lot for the new learner to overcome!

Of course it's not all difficulties. In my next post, I'll talk about some of the cognates and other slightly less obvious shortcuts that I've been able to use to my advantage so far.